by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
EVANSTON — The crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena fell silent on two occasions as Mississippi Valley State sent some serious shivers down Northwestern's back. The Wildcats warded them off twice to emerge victorious, 81-68, on Thursday night.
"We have a veteran backcourt," senior forward Jared Swopshire said. "So, I knew that eventually they'd run out of gas so we just kept telling each other to keep pressuring on defense and keep being aggressive on the offensive end."
After the Delta Devils (0-3) came back from an all-night deficit to tie the score at 43, senior guard Reggie Hearn drove beautifully along the baseline to sneak a layup in. Then, after Mississippi Valley State center Julius Francis came up short on a layup right by the basket, not realizing where he stood, the Wildcats (2-0), aided by a Hearn offensive rebound, ended up with a wide-open three from Swopshire to take a 48-43 lead.
An offensive foul then set the Wildcats up with a chance to expand their lead, and Hearn complied with a sweet stroke from the top of the arc to put them up 51-43. Senior guard Alex Marcotullio put an exclamation mark on Northwestern's run with a three-pointer from the left corner of the court to give the Wildcats a 56-45 lead.
Still, victory was far from secured. Guard Damon Usher kept Mississippi Valley State in the game all night long with his sweet shooting from behind the arc. When the Wildcats went on their run to start the second half, the Delta Devils clawed their way back into the game, highlighted by Usher's three-pointer to pull them within 56-53. Another Usher three-pointer, this time from the right corner as he fell away from the basket, tied the score at 58. Usher would finish with 35 points, including a scorching 7-of-8 clip from behind the arc.
"I, actually, take full responsibility for that," Hearn said. "When we watched tape, we saw that this kid was shooting lights out from the three-point line and there were a couple of times that I wasn't there on the catch. It took me, unfortunately, 30 minutes to figure out that I needed to face guard this kid."
Usher finished with more than half of his team's points.
"I remember looking up at some point in the second half and this kid had over half of their points," Hearn said. "They're pretty much all on me. That's not a good feeling."
After playing a key part in Northwestern's first run, Hearn helped ward off Mississippi Valley State's second rally as well, as he beautifully found sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski as he circled toward the hoop for a quick layup to restore Northwestern's lead to 60-58. A little bit later, the Wildcats caught a break, when redshirt freshman forward Mike Turner's badly missed jump shot bounced right out to Marcotullio, setting up a well-screened three from Sobolewski to put the Wildcats up 64-58. Soon after, Hearn set up Sobolewski on another charge to the hole to put Northwestern up eight.
"With the Princeton offense, you want guys to overplay," Hearn said. "I saw that guard was overplaying, and well, we feast on that, so I hit Sobo backdoor for a couple of layups and he finished strong and that got him going. He's going to be a key piece for us this year."
Swopshire's ensuing three, his fifth of the game, gave the Wildcats a double-digit lead. Another Sobolewski three forced a Delta Devils timeout with the Wildcats leading 75-61.
After the game, coach Bill Carmody said that he was hardly surprised by Sobolewski's hot shooting. After all, Northwestern charts all of its shots at practice, and on that chart, one man reigns supreme: Sobolewski.
"We've been practicing a month now and Sobo's our best shooter," Carmody said. "That guy can shoot."
The Wildcats won despite falling into foul trouble in what was a tightly officiated contest all night long. Senior forward Drew Crawford drew his fourth foul early in the second half, and freshman center Alex Olah followed not long after, forcing Northwestern to suppress a Mississippi Valley State rally without a couple of its biggest players.
After the Delta Devils drew within 56-55, Carmody did insert Crawford into the game, four fouls and all. He wasn't very effective, particularly after apparently sustaining a slight injury to his leg and his wrist earlier in the night.
"I didn't really ask what happened," Carmody said. "I thought it was more the leg than the wrist."
Still, the Wildcats didn't need Crawford on this night. Crawford finished with only four points, but Swopshire poured in 22 and Hearn added 23 to key Northwestern's victory.
"(Swopshire) is starting to find his groove," Carmody said. "Swop shoots the ball. He just wasn't allowed to do it down in Kentucky."